The ASAP Generation?
At first glance, Jenny Medina is struck by the design of asap, the new Associated Press service for twenty- and thirtysomethings.
"It looks slick. That's supposedly what we want, right?" At 24, Medina is situated squarely within the project's target demographic: 18- to 34-year-old news consumers. A metro reporter for The New York Times, she exists at the epicenter of the struggle to attract young readers to newspapers. She is both suitor and sought after. A college roommate of Medina's, Ryan Pearson, is a contributor to asap. He e-mailed her a link to his back-stage look at the recent Emmy awards, but she hadn't seen it yet when we talked by phone earlier this week.
"This is totally an immediate gut reaction," she said, as she took in the site for the first time during our conversation. "There's this notion that we want slickness, that we want everything streamlined ... this slick, easy-on-the-eyes beautiful thing, and I'm not sure that's true. I'm not sure I want that."
While we were speaking, the prominence of asap reporters' names in article blurbs caught Medina's eye. Giving the reporter a face -– and perhaps even a personality -– is something that she thinks will help people become more invested in the news.
"I find that my friends always want to know 'How did you get the story?' and 'How do you do all that?'" she said.
First-person stories-behind-the-story make up only a fraction of asap's content. In its first few hours of public access -– it was officially unveiled at noon on Monday -– it featured an interactive map explaining an ownership battle over a copy of the Bill of Rights, a photo gallery set to audio, depicting the changes to New Orleans' French Quarter after Hurricane Katrina, and constantly updated spot news pieces, adapted from the AP wire to cater to the asap audience.
asap emphasizes interactivity, news as an experience and challenging the status quo of news presentation. The site comes at a time when the news industry is grappling with the question of how to engage young readers. The Readership Institute and the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a joint report in April 2005 about how to reinvent the newspaper for young readers. The group's message to editors: "You can engage this group -– if you're prepared to fundamentally rethink your news choices and the way you present news and advertising content." They referred to the approach as "editing for experience."
Anthony: "What we're acknowledging is that there's not just one way to tell a story." "What we're acknowledging is that there's not just one way to tell a story," asap editor Ted Anthony told me by phone. "Everybody has a different take on the world. Showing the texture of the world is something that can come in a lot of different packages."
For some of asap's stories, that means tying audio commentary to photos of a news event. For others, it may include interactive maps, blogs or video clips of a scene surrounding what's reported on the wire.
asap is also about brevity. Significant brevity. The French Quarter multimedia package lasts about 46 seconds. Most of the site's spot news stories are five paragraphs long, and many include "fast facts" at the bottom of the piece.
That's something David Plazas, the 29-year-old editor of Gaceta Tropical, a free weekly that serves the Spanish-speaking community of Fort Myers, Fla., says his generation can especially appreciate.
"We like to consume a lot more news in smaller bites," he said by phone. "And a lot of it is because of time. I run a publication, so I have to constantly read a lot of things, and I don't have much time to spend on other things ... it's hard for me to sit down with a longer piece unless I'm really interested in it."
Maegan Carberry can appreciate the struggle between newspapers and young readers. She's 25 and a general assignment reporter at RedEye, The Chicago Tribune's youth-oriented tabloid.
"Everyone's busy, and when you're trying to reach a person in this audience -– or any media consumer, really –- you're not just competing with other news sources, you're competing with whether they have time to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks that day," she said by phone. "They're always looking for a way to spend their time. So you have to be interesting enough to get them to choose you over whatever their other needs are ... I think one thing that holds papers back is they try to do a 'young' story, and it reads like my mom wrote the story for me to read. You have to have the perspective of someone who's in the demographic when you write it."
"[asap is] very much aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds, but there's a caveat," Anthony said. "It's aimed at the way people in that age group consume news ... and the metaphor I use is that the information world is this rushing river of data, and people want to reach into the river and pick up what they want, and assemble their own collage on the riverbank."
Carberry: "I think that young people want the same thing that everybody wants. I think they just want really good journalism." But that kind of cafeteria-style news browsing isn't exclusive to the 18-to-34 demographic, Anthony says. It is an approach to news that he hopes will have much broader appeal. The Project for Excellence in Journalism's "State of the News Media: 2005" report called Americans "news grazers, sampling, through the course of the day, a varied media buffet." The annual study, which analyzes the habits of news consumers across media, indicated that 36 percent of Americans regularly get their news from four or more different kinds of sources: newspapers, radio, magazines, television, online, etc. [For a sampling of some young journalists' news-consumption habits, click here.] But young news consumers want more than just quantity, the Times' Medina says.
"I think that young people want the same thing that everybody wants. I think they just want really good journalism," she said. "And I think, to a large extent, that means explaining things. It means more than going down [to a place like New Orleans after the hurricane] and taking a snapshot of what's going on. It means going down there and looking at it in a broader context."
asap aims to accomplish just that by deploying the vast global resources of The Associated Press. The new site has a dedicated staff of 20, Anthony says, but its news pool includes all of the writers and photographers employed by its parent wire service. Contributions from AP correspondents -– in written, video, audio and picture form –- will make up 40 percent of asap's content. Some of that will be first-person, story-behind-the-story commentary by AP writers and photojournalists in the field, much like Tuesday's "Fast Focus" by Danica Kirka, which featured the Vienna-based correspondent's thoughts on Simon Wiesenthal's death as she wrote his obituary.
"We can go to the people who are actually there and actually gathering information and get what they think," Anthony said. "The whole point of journalism is that people who can be someplace that the reader can't [be] act as the reader's representative. Sometimes people lose sight of that."
Anthony: "We're trying to tell the stories in the world that will keep people coming back." Other AP contributions include the site's signature spot news service, a feature that Anthony refers to as "asap news-on-steroids." The section, featured on the bottom right of nearly every page, is constantly updated, about 50 times a day, generated from content on the traditional AP wire. asap staff members revamp the stories, often shortening the content, including their own pictures and rewriting the language in a more casual tone.
But Anthony is wary of the idea that this service is just another watered-down version of hard news. Most of his staff, he is quick to point out, come from a hard-news background.
"We're not trying to create a false tone or anything," he said. "We're trying to tell the stories in the world that will keep people coming back."
A self-described "unrepentant hunter-gatherer" when it comes to finding online news, Anthony has been with the AP since 1992, serving as a national and foreign correspondent in Beijing, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. asap, he says, will reflect the AP's global focus –- but in a way that will help consumers connect to the news.
"I think international news is hugely important in this equation. I don't buy that people in this audience are not interested in international news -– I think they are vastly interested," he said. "I think that finding ways to funnel the most interesting parts of the world [directly] from those parts of the world to America is so important ... I think that sometimes it's difficult to make a connection between journalism and relevance to people's lives, and I think we can always do a better job of that."
But not everyone is confident that asap can fulfill that goal."I have an instinctive distrust of news sites aimed at a young demographic, which always seem to dumb-down the news," said Michaela Cavallaro in an e-mail interview. "If a story is good, then it's good, in my opinion, and it doesn't need to be targeted for young 'uns with short attention spans, like some kind of Weekly Reader for grownups."
Cavallaro is the 33-year-old editor of Mainebiz, a statewide business newspaper based in Portland, Maine. Although some of the site's content struck her as "a little junior high," Cavallaro said that overall, asap's stories and design were appealing. She pointed specifically to its post-Katrina coverage and an "Assignment: Iraq" piece that included the blog of a Marine who was recently redeployed to Iraq.
"Which raises a question," she added, "Why wouldn't smart people over age 34 like either of those features?"
Pedro Morales, who, at 27, is in the mid-range of asap's target audience, has a different take.
"I like the idea of a page with news for young folks," the Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press reporter said. Morales finds most of his news online, and said that young people are looking, first and foremost, for a news site that is quick and easy to traverse. asap, he said in an e-mail interview, fulfills those criteria.
"It's fast. And it seems to be easy, but I'd like to see more of it. I'd like to see how easy this will be to navigate, because if it's easy to navigate, then it will be a hit," he said. "If it's not, I don't think young people will take much time with it."
Bruno VanderVelde, a 28-year-old Chicago Sun-Times copy editor, was skeptical after his first cursory glance at the asap site.
"Just like a lot of stuff out there aimed at young people, it's heavy on style and light on substance," he said in an e-mail interview. "The impression among some of us younger types is that we're deemed to be too flighty and inattentive for the 'real' news, apparently, so we get to have these 'kiddie' papers instead. I hope that's not the approach AP takes –- I find it insulting to our intelligence."Anthony: "We are accurate, we are fair, and we reflect the best principles of the AP, and as long as we stay within those boundaries, we can push the envelope." But RedEye's Carberry disagrees. "I think it's a smart move," she said. "This content doesn't necessarily just apply to young readers. A lot of people want concise news about diverse subjects."
The asap approach, Anthony says, will be as focused on the integrity of the news as its parent company. "It's very much a product of the AP's journalistic tradition. We are accurate, we are fair, and we reflect the best principles of the AP, and as long as we stay within those boundaries, we can push the envelope."
"I don't think that by making sure that news is interesting and incorporates all the senses, that you're doing something inappropriate with the news. The news is a very fluid beast," he said.
Still, the site is young and new and will probably be subject to tweaks and changes along the path of its development, according to Anthony.
"I'm not afraid to say that we're learning as we go. This hybridization of traditional media and new media is not an easy thing to figure out, but we think at the AP that we already have so many of the tools to figure it out that we need to ... shoot for things we've never done before," he said. "We want to try new things and we recognize that when you try new things that some will fail and some will succeed."